Take-off – Nelson Kellogg

Historians undertake to arrange sequences—called stories or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect…Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant. He had even published a dozen volumes of American history for no other purpose than to satisfy himself, whether, by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, he could fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement…

Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.

From “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” (1900) in The Education of Henry Adams (1918), emphasis added.

 

There were no pilots in Carter’s family. No one to his knowledge from his mother’s or father’s side had ever shown any interest in flying. No one was afraid to fly, but—as with any mode of transportation—planes, trains or automobiles (or boats) were merely means to an endpoint, and nothing to take note of for their own sake. Yes, the machineries of transport were remarkable innovations that undoubtedly had a lot to do with the modern world being so modern. But they just came along with being born at a certain time, and there was nothing remarkable about a world filled with machines any more. The same went for skyscrapers, electricity, fast food and television. This was the way everybody thought, and the Kilbournes weren’t any different in that regard.

He had to admit that his family was better off than most, but not so extreme that Carter went around self-conscious of some outrageous fortune. He’d heard that phrase somewhere, which he kept in mind in case he ever became a billionaire instead of just a modest millionaire. A billion in the bank; maybe that would be outrageous. As long as he genuinely felt that to be true, Carter figured his sense of proportion and human values was basically sound.

Still, even with his net worth just north of $200 million, it was tricky to state unequivocally how he had come by his money. It wasn’t from theft or dishonesty. He didn’t know of any awful skeletons in the family closet. Some of it was just luck, for sure. His wealth came from a businessman of no particular distinction, originally. There were no Horatio Algers in the family tree. No heroes, no inspirational figures of any stripe. No innovators or desperadoes. No Edison. No Al Capone or Jesse James. And Carter knew it wasn’t necessary to be courageous or especially clever to put together a tidy sum of money.

Sure, it helps to have some imagination at the outset of acquiring wealth. Someone has to see that you might get rich and not to be so spooked by the prospect that he ran away from it. After that, the most useful thing to have was a respectable family name, the sort of lineage that other people might like to be associated with. And unless you were already a master of the known universe, it helped not to be weird, like belonging to fringe groups or getting all bent out of shape by political causes. It also gave you a boost if you were sort of physically attractive. And hygienic. Presentable, with pleasant manners. The sort of luck to avoid the boat-anchors like bad teeth or excessive body hair.

After that, if you just had a few good connections—any one of your friends might have a profitable business idea, or a family enterprise to help run—then you’d probably be invited to get involved somehow. You’d be put in charge of a project or recruited onto a board of directors. One thing led to another, and channeling a few tens of millions over the course of a career was nothing that would catch anyone’s attention. And actual work was required. Lots of hours, lots of meetings, and even some real responsibility. If you didn’t see money the same way a junkie sees the next fix, you could do all this with some style. You could do everything above board and you and your family could have whatever money it needs. No scandals. No tragedy. No ruined lives.

It really doesn’t advance our cause, here, to dwell on all the different enterprises and public works that Carter’s family ingratiated themselves into, because, ultimately, they weren’t unusual. They weren’t all that interesting, not to most people Carter knew anyway. Well, actually, some of them may have been very interesting, because among other income streams, Mr. Carter Kilbourne, Sr., had also been partner in a venture capital collective, and they did provide start-up investing to a few companies that did some novel things, including one alternative energy company and one micro-lending consortium in Sub-Saharan Africa. Intriguingly, the energy company folded, but the micro-financing idea took off. That looked nice on Carter Sr.’s resume and kept expanding his portfolio value, but he never had passion for any of the projects and, truth be told, he didn’t understand them well enough to have generated much interest.

But, as we already noted, this isn’t telling Carter Jr.’s story at all. It explains the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about going broke. And since he was also fortunate enough to inherit not only business connections from his father but also his pleasant disposition and modest good looks, plus a disinclination to engage in anything scandalous or mean, his life just kind of went along, unremarkably, in comfort and good taste. In fact, the only thing that could mark the son as being evolutionarily distinct from the father might be found in the situation he currently found himself. He was parked at the end of a runway at a private rural airport, on a bracingly crisp predawn October morning, waiting for the manifold of his WWII-era Corsair to reach optimal temperature.

It had only been ten years since Carter took up flying. At first it was just a way to find something to do that might have caché. For him it was preferable to playing polo. Polo was far too demanding. An actual sport, for one thing, better left to those who had learned how to handle horses as much younger men. But even if he were so trained and equipped, you had to actually like it. You should really want to play polo if you would be spending time with polo players. And that was the other part; you had to hang out with others and talk about your mutual passion. Carter wasn’t looking for another excuse to hang out with anyone. The amount of human interaction already required of him was more than enough, and it bored him. So, learning to pilot an old warbird was the perfect solution. It gave him a small fraternity to belong to, but most of the members weren’t given to a lot of talking. Besides, among the fliers, nobody knew much about him or his family, and they weren’t expecting anything from the association that didn’t concern flying or repairing old airplanes.

Flying started as a lark but became something deeper. A board member of some fund or charity had mentioned getting a private pilot’s license. Carter couldn’t even remember who it was since it didn’t lead to further conversation at the time. Besides, his recollection was that the associate who had planted that idea was only into flying for business reasons. That fellow wanted to fly his own corporate turbojet. Whatever. But after Carter finished ground school and was taking flight lessons, he caught sight of an aerobatics practice session involving some of the typical aircraft used for that sport: a Pitts, a Stearman, and, most amazingly, a restored Gee Bee Special, a speed demon favored by, among others, a young Howard Hughes.

These machines were nothing like the modern military jet fighters used by the Blue Angels. As impressive as those demonstrations were, they always seemed more like a corporate outreach than outlaw activity. Military jets flying in formation looked, from the ground, like the pilots were conducting brain surgery than leathery men throwing themselves at the sky because nothing that happened on the ground could get their blood pumping or widen their eyes. No, these piston-driven machines were not computer-regulated or climate-controlled. They were little more than engines bolted to wings. The soundscape was completely different as well. Sure, the jets had infinitely more power, and they still made a lot of noise. But inside the cockpit, there was no noise or wind, at least no more than you would experience in seat 11D of a commercial commuter flight.

The Pitts, on the other hand, was more like a street tough, angry and pugilistic on the tarmac. As it idled, the exhaust headers on its massive radial engine popping like sequential mortars, it wasn’t tentatively preparing to form a graceful aerodynamic union with the atmosphere. It was just biding its time, waiting for full throttle when it could punch the shit out of the unsuspecting surrounding air. Sure, wings and control flaps were important for changing direction, but this plane wasn’t about to plead with gravity, or with lift or drag, for entrance into higher elevations. It would get where it wanted by chewing up the air or anything else in front of it and tossing it mercilessly behind in a blistering prop-wash. It could climb straight up on a column of tortured atmosphere if that were called for.

The Gee Bee Special was another matter. For an inter-war craft, the Gee Bee was less a muscled thug than simply a maniac, a berserker brought to life. It was only built for one thing: blinding, furious speed. And in its purest evocation, it had but two states: silent or howling…

When Carter first saw these combatants roaring above him, he was overcome. Only one incident in his life bore the slightest resemblance to this experience. It was the first day of high school, and Carter, a somewhat late bloomer, was only getting the first rushes of puberty. He was putting a windbreaker into his newly-assigned locker, and something bumped into the locker door. He turned to see a bright-eyed girl. She blushed and uttered an “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and touched Carter’s elbow for reassurance. Carter froze, and was suddenly terrified that everyone would see his excitement through the crotch of his Levis. Life and death were instantly, erotically linked, and Carter secretly wished for the latter. It was strange having that instance brilliantly recalled some forty years later, the moment Carter saw a Pitts claw its way skyward.

Carter could still recall standing outside the family house in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was but four years old. The ample house spoke more of breeding than an unexpected burst of wealth. The youngster, already set for a day of aimless, if solitary, play, stood by the hedges of the circular drive, waiting for his father to come out and drive himself to work. So far as he knew, this was how every family began its average workday. Carter Sr. would say some words of habit to Mrs. Kilbourne, open the front door, briefcase in hand, and take casual note of his son before starting up the Packard.

Carter Sr. could afford whatever automobile he wished and could have been driven by chauffeur. But he preferred to drive the handful of miles to his primary office in town, and he purchased a new Packard every year instead of either a European sedan or even a Cadillac.

Years later, Carter Jr. would recall his father’s explanation of taste in the matter. European cars were fine, if you were European, but in the early years after W.W.II, it was best to put money back into the American economy. After all America had done to win the war, we deserved good fortune for ourselves, and we had already instituted the Marshall Plan to help Europe get back on her feet. As far as Cadillacs were concerned, they were just too obvious and showy, and Carter Sr. had it on good authority from some of his own design engineers that Cadillac was the most overrated car on the market, nothing but a lot of extra sheet metal, chrome, and squishy suspension thrown onto Chevy running gear. The General Motors entry-line car was, without doubt, a superior vehicle to the top-line Eldorado, while costing a third or less at retail. The Caddy, far from being an example of American know-how and derring-do, already served as an embarrassing emblem of the bloated consumer culture we would soon be known for. Could it have also been possible, Carter would wonder as an adult, that his father favored the Packard because his own businesses had partnered with Packard, and that Packard, not only General Motors, had reaped huge profits supplying power plants for American fighter planes during the war?

What had happened in the intervening decades for the Kilbourne family line that brought us to the present? Some literary type could make something out of it, Carter was sure. Put the family photos and news-clippings in the hands of a Philip Roth, and you could fashion some great epic relating the rise and ultimate decay of an American family to the rise and fall of the empire. Maybe a television mini-drama. But for whatever reason, neither the pursuit of ever greater wealth and its attendant possibilities of enduring fame or infamy, nor of guiding a nation to some higher purpose, nor of wallowing in the worst indulgent and corrupting pursuits that money could provide, was in Carter’s nature. He basically maintained the gilded status quo, did what was expected, and then absorbed the inordinate proportion of the world’s financial resources that came his way. He was like an immense and extremely well-placed drift net in the course of human events, and it would actually take effort on his part to change any of that.

The only part of the picture that caused Carter Jr. to furrow his brow occasionally was the fact that he could never, when he thought about it, square the circle. He knew that through most of human history, the majority of people were nearly completely given over to the effort of surviving, of getting enough to eat on a daily basis, of huddling against the insults of the environment, of reproducing. And once that was secured, after say thirty years, you died of old age and nobody thought that was anything but normal. Isn’t it odd, thought Carter, that the primary concerns and efforts of our species included nothing that he had worried about or struggled for. At sixty years of age, he was not only strong and healthy, but he had more material wealth at his disposal than could be attributed to perhaps an entire civilization of eight thousand years ago, in the early stages of agriculture and the domestication of livestock. How did that work? Was there a point to that?

He remembered hearing somewhere that the amount of material and cultural wealth
owned and controlled by a middle-class American—if you added up food and shelter, manufactured goods and the energy to run them, and the ability to travel and be educated, and the individual shares of public goods and infrastructure—was equivalent to having some two hundred personal slaves working full-time for your benefit, in early America. He wasn’t sure how that calculation was made, but the image had stayed with him. The very idea that one person would need the constant work and attention of two hundred other human beings to focus such wealth to himself, as was now common to so many millions, was breath-taking. And Carter knew that his personal wealth was many hundreds of times greater than that of anything like “middle class.” It wasn’t at all out of the question that his circumstances would be equivalent to a million lives laboring in the late eighteenth century, just a handful of generations ago. This also meant that, if wealth like his depended on human muscular work and craft knowledge, the entire global population would have to be permanently enslaved to support even a few hundred well-to-do people.

Carter held no doubt that the world wasn’t fair, the inequalities huge. That wasn’t the source of his mental confusion. If you added up the material wealth of all people both rich AND poor, and somehow you had to generate and maintain all of that stuff through skilled human work and draft animal labor, it would require about fifty other planet earths full of people, with their hand tools and animals, working full-time just to support us! The world’s current state wasn’t a matter of just hard work and efficiency. It was fantasy. If someone imagined a world like this two hundred years ago, the only way to envision getting there would have been to simply wave a hand and say, “And then a miracle happened and everything was different.”

Yet this wasn’t a leap of creativity or imagination. It was hallucinatory. All of Carter’s advantage in life, all of his comfort and capabilities, were the full flowering of a continuous hallucination from which, it seemed, there was no waking up. By the time Carter was fifty years old, he was fully aware that he was living in a powerfully altered reality, one which had no reason to be, and one where the very act of living seemed to have no relationship whatsoever to the elements with which all other living things contend. What one actually did to and with the physical world had no connection to the physical body of the individual who willed that action.

One could be frail of body and still, without a thought, hurl oneself along with several tons of steel down a concrete roadway, concentrating, quite literally, the same energy and potentially destructive force as an entire company of Napoleon’s cavalry. One could easily have instantaneous communication with thousands of individuals on the other side of the planet. Individuals of even modest means expect powers over time, space, and matter that, but a little while ago, were absolutely unattainable for anyone, regardless of wealth or position. And these were the expectations of our everyday lives, considered normal even though they have no relationship to anything our bodies could ever do. And what was worse, we do these things, nearly all of us, without the slightest idea of how it all happens. This was indeed living as a child, simply expecting that magical chants and potions and creatures make things happen.

But the child has been told to play with a volcano instead of a rag doll, and the child is never asked to grow up. And by Carter’s fiftieth birthday it wasn’t simply that he felt the need to stop his own hallucination, but that the entire world seemed filled with people who did not even know they were hallucinating.

This all changed the day Carter saw a hyper-ventilating and steroidal Gee Bee Racer take to the sky. From that day forward, he devoted himself to learning the rudiments of flying, hanging out at the dusty airfield breathing in the aviation gas vapors, and watching the laconic pilot-mechanics work like foul-mouthed monks attending to unearthly powers that were secret only because they were so obvious and unremarkable to all but priesthood.

And this morning was just a morning. Carter was hoping only for a sojourn with the sky and the mechanical sublime. He was looking forward to being alone for six hours—six hours that might feel like no time at all, or all the time in the world, or both. Alone with simplicity and power. And it was simple. Though sophisticated and an excellent flier, the Corsair wasn’t complicated. Of the hundreds of gallons of aviation-grade gas in its tanks, only whispers of it were injected sequentially into each of the twelve cavernous cylinders, to be compressed and ignited by a simple spark mechanism. The punishing force created by that simple combustion, repeated thousands of times each minute, mercilessly pushed pistons bigger than a catcher’s glove down the engine block, causing the connecting rod to rotate a crankshaft, driving the voracious four-bladed propeller. Sure, lots of other parts performed necessary housekeeping for the underlying mechanism. Valves and inlets, a cooling system, the ignition and battery. But basically, all of these little gadgets helped harness the ungodly power of the burning gas—the distillate of ancient starlight—which then lofted a metal airplane above the clouds as though it were a fruit fly you just blew from your peach with barely a thought. The same basic elixir powered cars and trucks and factories, and drove most generators lighting our cities and homes. It provided the billions and billions of personal slaves. Thousands of muscled creatures rested in his wing tanks at this instant, all waiting their turn to manifest as brilliant, directed explosions, and bring tons of inert mechanism into single-minded, propulsive destiny.

This extract turned the dreams of future prosperity into a global hallucination and, maybe, a nightmare. If that nightmare turned deadly, it wouldn’t take the form of a mushroom cloud, or of a terrorist plot, or some zombie virus escaped from a lab. The lethal dream need only consist of the planet’s population wielding forces they didn’t understand, insulated from every physical effort, and accomplishing their living divorced of any sense of cause and effect.

They said if you were falling from a great height in a dream, you woke up before you hit bottom. Kids held to the urban myth that if you DO hit the bottom in your dream, you will actually die. But this dream was different. It didn’t end by hitting the canyon floor. It ended with everyone floating, not knowing what their bodies were for. It ended with you not knowing what you didn’t know, or why. It ended with everyone dead but still thinking they were alive.

The Corsair was the only craft on the apron, and the only sound at the airfield. The Merlin engine was still burping occasional rude detonations, and each piston’s power-stroke exerted so much percussive torque on the airframe that the gauges were rattling blurs to Carter’s vision. He got his fix on the state of the engine through feel, through the exhaust note, and by trying to imagine the average position of the needles for temperatures and pressures of cylinder block, oil, and water, as well as nominal voltages and charge rates for ignition and controls. The FAA-approved two-way radio and an emergency locater transponder were the only electronics Carter conceded to.

The Merlin smoothed out to a steady low roar as Carter eased off the taxi brakes and rolled into takeoff position. He turned on the brilliant tree of landing lights he had installed on the wheel struts, which bleached the asphalt blue-white in front of him. He locked the brakes and throttled up to 4500 r.p.m. before trimming the pitch of the massive propeller blades. The warbird was fully awake and ready to devour the atmosphere. When the brakes released, the Corsair pulled hard into the horizon. The runway was long and empty, so Carter delayed the airborne climax as long as he could, holding off until he had reached 220 knots on the ground and maximum engine torque before letting the glinting, underslung gull wings have their way, which catapulted him upward, and forced him into his seat better than any amusement park ride.

In an instant there was no view of earth, only some remaining stars in the lightening sky. In this moment Carter could not isolate his senses, nor could he contemplate them. The primal roar of the Merlin, the white noise cataract of wind over the airframe and prop-thrust over the cockpit plexiglas, the torch-strobe of his lights as they caught fragments of fog and dust at random instants, only to disappear entirely in clear air, the acceleration of demon machinery locking his body into its power and mindless determination.

And suddenly it stopped. The engine didn’t sputter. It just turned off. All the indicator lights dimmed. The artificial horizon, like a three-dimensional carpenter’s level, showed that his angle of climb, which had just been almost forty-five degrees, was pitching forward and down under the weight of the massive but inert Merlin engine, and the airspeed indicator was dropping quickly. Carter suddenly became weightless as the Corsair, now silent but for the whistling of the atmosphere and some electrical sparking under the instrument panel, became a silent and unnatural intruder in the dawn, describing as it crested a perfect ballistic arc.

As Carter and his unresponsive captor began to descend, the airspeed picked up, but not enough to change destiny. The control surfaces were unresponsive at this speed, and by the time gravity had given back the energy the Corsair had poured into it, a change in trajectory would be absolutely impossible. As the landscape rapidly inflated in front of the windscreen, Carter saw a farm of fuel storage tanks, which he had never before noticed, tucked up against the hillside. He also saw the high tension lines of a major electrical trunk line.

The Corsair tore perfectly through several series of million-volt power lines at about 260 knots, slicing off the Corsair’s main wings as deftly as a samurai might slice a foe and leave him standing, temporarily, until he realized he had been bifurcated. The fuselage, freed of any pretension of control, was now a speeding sarcophagus milliseconds from its final destination in the white cylindrical sepulcher of liquid natural gas. Just before impact, Carter inhaled a puff of ozone and burning insulation. It was…impossibly…sweet. “Whatever happened to Suzie Langsam,” thought Carter. “In ninth-grade homeroom, she always smelled like cinnamon.”

 

About the Author: Nelson “Buzz” Kellogg is a writer and emeritus professor of humanities at Sonoma State University (Cal. State U.). His doctorate in the history of science is from Johns Hopkins University.

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